California middle class families may still get scholarship help

June 13, 2017

Reading room at UC Berkeley's Doe Library

The California Legislature’s final actions this year on higher education funding will please some middle-income families but may lead to conflicts with Gov. Jerry Brown.

The embattled Middle Class Scholarship program that Brown sought to end was kept alive in the conference committee budget legislation that both houses are expected to approve this week. Saying it was too expensive and not efficient, Brown wanted to phase out the program that provided aid for about 50,000 middle class students at California’s two public university systems this year. But parents around the state whose income was not low enough to qualify for Cal Grants lobbied the Legislature for the Middle Class aid to continue.

Begun in 2014-15, the grants were aimed at easing the tuition burden of families with annual incomes generally between $80,000 and $150,000. Depending on school, income and other aid a student receives, those grants will be as much as $5,052 next year for a UC student and $2,298 for a CSU student, according to the California Student Aid Commission, which administers the grants.

Brown’s staff had estimated that the phase-out over four years would have saved about $116 million. His administration did not answer requests for comment about whether Brown might line-veto the aid program.

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, said she was “very pleased” about the Legislature’s action on the Middle Class grants but said she wanted to work to better integrate them with other publicly financed aid available to California students.

In other financial aid action, the Legislature moved to maintain full funding for Cal Grants that are used at private colleges and universities. Brown earlier in the year had proposed cutting those maximum awards by 11 percent, or $1,028, from the current $9,084 a year. But then Brown reversed himself and said he would agree to maintain the current levels if colleges increase enrollments of low-income students, make it easier to transfer from community colleges and bolster online classes. Analysts at the student aid commission say there could be disagreements ahead if Brown insists on those conditions as requirements rather than embracing the Legislature’s softer language that the private colleges make “good faith” efforts toward those goals.

Low-income community college students who attend school full time will become eligible for increased aid under the conference bill. Most of those students already pay no tuition and receive extra aid for books and living expenses. With a new $50 million in appropriations in the conference bill, the goal is to encourage more students to take at least 12 units a semester and complete their programs faster. For example, it calls for community college students who enroll in 15 units a term to be eligible for an additional $2,000  a year on top of other waivers and Cal Grants, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

In the aftermath of a controversy about UC spending and transparency, the Legislature went along with Brown’s plan to withhold $50 million in funding from UC. The money would be released if the 10-campus university system bolsters its enrollment of transfer students and shows that it is making enough effort to meet spending reform measures recommended in a recent state audit. UC, which has been criticized recently for some of its financial practices, receives about $3.6 billion a year in general revenue funds.

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